Last summer I participated in the Never Summer 100k trail race in Colorado with my friend CJ and his dad Paul. With over 13,000 feet of elevation change, though it is not a 100 mile race, it is considered to be of sufficient difficulty that it is a Western States Endurance Run (WSER) qualifier if finished under 23 hours. I have four 100-mile WSER qualifiers under my belt (over 3 years). Being the “grandaddy” of the 100 mile ultra marathon distance and having the notoriety of the Boston Marathon among the ultra community, Western States has become increasingly popular over the years… so much so that a lottery system has been implemented. Last year there were approximately 5800 people who entered for the 261 general entry slots (limited overall to 369 based on permitting limitations). If you complete a qualifying race, you can enter the lottery. If you do not get drawn, the number of lottery tickets you receive doubles for each consecutive year that you qualify and apply.
Having completed Never Summer 100k in 22:05, I received my WSER qualifier but failed to get drawn in 2018 (for the 2019 race) even with 8 tickets. Western States has become a bucket list item for me, so it was time to look for another race. Though I enjoy trail running, I’m starting to feel a bit burned out on the ultra distances. There are plenty of other epic adventures out there and the training definitely takes quite a bit of time. That said, when Paul decided to register for the Black Canyon 100k held in mid-February in Arizona, which is another WSER qualifier when finished in under 17 hours, my interest was piqued.
Being the procrastinator I am, I dragged my feet for a few weeks after Paul registered. I was a little nervous about having a race that early in the season, as most of my training would likely be relegated to the treadmill during the Michigan winters. I decided it would be good to get the qualifier out of the way early and I enjoyed doing Never Summer 100k with Paul and CJ, so I decided I would go ahead and register. Unfortunately, by the time I did so it was full and there was now a waiting list. I went ahead and put my name on the list. As fate would have it, they opened up a number of additional slots a week later, and I was in! When I told CJ, he decided he would sign up as well. He waited on the wait list for a bit longer but eventually got in.
Fast forwarding a few months, I was able to get quite a few trail runs in in December, but conditions made it hard in January. A bad cold knocked me out for about a week over the holidays and it took another week to ramp back up.
Overall, my training was largely biased toward aerobic fitness as opposed to speed, which is fine for ultra distance races where the name of the game is endurance. I ran about 10-12 miles 3-4 days week, racking up about 175 miles in January. That’s actually pretty low mileage for many ultra runners but I’ve found I start to feel run down and bored if it do much more than that. So to make sure I was still getting the training in, I mixed up the schedule with a lot of cross training: spinning 1-2 days/week, vinyasa yoga 3-4 days/week, swimming 2-3 days/week and a HIIT body weight class once a week at the gym (doing multiple workouts per day).
To cap it off, to make sure I wasn’t over training, I made sure to get plenty of sleep and take 20 minute power naps when I felt tired during the day… one of the perks of working from home!
I flew out to Phoenix on Wednesday night. CJ’s parents had rented a house in Surprise, AZ, about 45 minutes from the start. In the preceding weeks, CJ had developed a pain in his knee, which impacted his training. He decided to bail on running the race but still flew down on Thursday to support me and his dad.
Earlier that morning Paul and I went for an easy 4 mile shake-out run at the White Tank Mountains Regional Park. I neglected to get any photos at the park during the run, as it was drizzling when we first arrived and I was reluctant to get my phone wet, but I went back later that day and took some pictures of interesting cacti.
Later Thursday we received an update from the race directors indicating that the rain that day had made the Agua Fria river, which the race route crossed a handful of times, run high and fast, making it unsafe to cross. They outlined two contingency routes – the “Little Pan Option” and “High Water Option” – which they may need to switch to should the water levels not drop sufficiently. The Little Pan Option made only a slight change to the route to avoid a crossing to get to one of the aid stations, while the High Water Option substantially changed it so no crossings of the Agua Fria would be necessary; however, it would involve doing a 4.4 mile out-and-back down to the river from Black Canyon City aid station, then do another 22 mile out-and-back backtracking along a previous section of the route to Gloriana Mine, finishing at Black Canyon City. They said they would monitor the situation and send out an update Friday morning.
On Friday morning CJ and I took a quick trip to the local Lifetime Fitness to get a quick strength circuit workout in. I made sure to go easy on the legs and just focus on the upper body. Yes, I have a hard time tapering before races.
Packet pick-up started at 1 PM on Friday. We were some of the first ones to arrive. Getting our bibs and t-shirts went quickly, and because we were some of the first ones there, we snagged some nice souvenir glasses from the previous year for free. We spent some time perusing t-shirts, hats, etc. that they had for sale. We also had a pre-race picture taken, WSER-style.
After packet pick-up, I met up with my boss, who I had yet to meet even after working for him for about 2 years, at Four Peaks in Tempe. I usually avoid alcohol before a race, but I’ve been gradually relaxing those rules to test the waters to see if doing so has any negative effects. Also, it was good to establish that informal rapport with him face-to-face over a couple of tasty beverages.
Friday morning had come and gone without an update from the race directors, but we did we receive one that evening, indicating that they were going to use the Little Pan Option.
For dinner the night before the race we ended up eating Chipotle and some homemade apple pie that CJ’s mom had made while watching Valley Uprising, a documentary on the history of rock climbing culture in Yosemite Valley. I probably ate more than I should, but, well, I figured it would help in the “elimination” process the next morning before the race.
I pulled together my drop bags Friday night after dinner. I had pretty much organized everything before leaving Michigan, putting together a drop bag for every available opportunity. I discuss what I put into each below in the Race Plan section, so I won’t go into it here.
I ended up crawling into bed around 9:30 PM and falling asleep around 10 PM. As is typical before a race, I tossed and turned for a bit and didn’t feel like I slept very deeply. Even though I don’t get stressed out about races much any more, my body seems to get a little anxious regardless.
In order to plan out what gear to put into the 4 drop bags (Bumble Bee Ranch, Black Canyon City, Table Mesa and the finish), I put together a spreadsheet to estimate where I would be based on some goal times. I came up with a few goals:
Goal A: Finish before sunset so I wouldn’t need to use a head lamp. The race started at 7 AM and sunset was at 6:36 PM. An 11:30 finish time would be about an 11 min/mile pace. This was a very ambitious goal; all four of my previous 100k ultras I had finished in the 18-22 hour range, so this was definitely a stretch goal. However, each of those races had various other factors that had played into those times: more elevation change, running at elevation, heat, and sticking with other running friends. I have completed a 50 mile ultra in 10:20, so an extra 12 miles but with a general downhill trend… it seemed within the realm of possibility. Still, it would require everything going right: no injuries (luckily I’ve had nothing major happen in the past), no stomach issues (usually not a problem), the ability to bank a lot of time on the descent in the first 37 miles of the race. Having never run this race, I had no idea what the course or trail was like… fast and easy or slow and technical, so this unfamiliarity was what I considered the limiting factor (spoiler: it was).
Goal B: Assuming finishing before sunset wasn’t going to happen, my next goal was to finish only needing the headlamp from the last drop bag aid station (Table Mesa) to the end. With the course re-route, this would get changed to the Gloriana Mine. I would need to finish in about 14 hours for this to happen, with an average pace around a 13:30 min/mile.
Goal C- and C+: If finishing in 14 hours wasn’t achievable, my next goal was to just finish below the 17 hour cut-off for the Western States Endurance Run qualifier. This would require an average pace of about 16:20 min/mile. Ideally I would want an hour buffer before that just in case, which would be about a 15:25 min/mile average pace.
Goal D: If everything went wrong and I didn’t make the WSER qualifier, I at least wanted to finish and get the finisher buckle. I haven’t DNF’d yet and I would like to avoid it if possible! Doing so would require finishing before the 20 hour cut-off (3 AM!) with a 17 min/mile pace until the first aid station to make the 9:15 AM cut-off, then an overall average pace of 19:15 min/mile.
Elevation profile of original route (the High Water Route varies after Black Canyon City)
With that in mind, I organized my gear, drop bags and race plan as follows:
Start (Mile 0):
- Start with the following gear:
- Luna Oso 2.0 running sandals
- Injinji compression socks
- XO Skin compression shorts
- race bib pinned to shorts
- Ultraspire race belt (pockets for lube, nutrition bars for long distances between aid stations, toilet paper, snack baggies with 3 scoops of Tailwind, phone)
- short sleeve tech shirt
- arm sleeves (for warmth and sun protection)
- a long sleeve tech shirt on top for warmth (started in the high 30’s)
- Hideaway milagro (my race day good luck charm)
- Ironman running hat with a brim
- sunglasses (for when the sun is along the horizon)
- insulated water bottle with water and Tailwind
Bumble Bee Aid Station (Mile 19.5):
- ditch the running hat and pick up a visor for heat management, since the temperature would be warming up by this time
- ditch the long sleeve tech shirt extra layer
- resupply Tailwind
Black Canyon City (Mile 37.4):
- have a spare set of Injinji toe socks and calf sleeves if necessary
- have my Merrell Bare Access shoes handy if the Luna Oso 2.0 running sandals weren’t working out. The Bare Access shoes are actually better for road running, but I don’t have a set of trail shoes I’m happy with (read: don’t cause blisters) at the moment. I usually run in sandals.
- have headlamp with extra batteries if I wasn’t projected to make it to Table Mesa (the next drop bag aid station) by sunset (6:30 PM)
- have extra water bottle if I felt I would need it for an 8.8 mile stretch to the next aid station
- have extra short sleeve tech shirt and running shorts if I wanted to change into something fresh
- resupply Tailwind, apply lube to feet if necessary
Table Mesa (Mile 50.9):
- have another set of Injinji compression socks handy
- have my Luna Mono 2.0 running sandals handy if the other shoes weren’t working out. These have been my go-to footwear for my previous 100 mile and 100 km races and they are very comfortable, but they have about 1200 miles on them and the tread is pretty worn at this point, so I figured I would use the Oso 2.0’s first.
- have two extra long sleeve shirts available for warmth, as the temp could potentially be in the high 30’s/low 40’s.
- have a spare headlamp and batteries in case I didn’t grab the ones at Black Canyon City
- ditch the visor and grab a winter beanie for warmth and wear with the headlamp
- resupply Tailwind, apply lube to feet if necessary
Finish (Mile 62):
I woke around 4 AM to shower and get ready for the race that started at 7 AM. I pinned my race bib to my shorts and filled my water bottle with water and Tailwind. Breakfast was a cup of coffee and bowl of a 1/2 cup of Greek yogurt, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and half a banana. Though the coffee helped signal to my bowels that it was time to get moving, I didn’t go as much as I though I should have, considering how much I ate the night before. This had me a bit worried, as it’s less than ideal to get the urge mid race and between aid stations, but there wasn’t much I could do but wait.
We received a last minute email from the race directors before we left, indicating that they were uncomfortable with the flow of the river, so they were going to switch to the High Water Option. Not being familiar with the trail or run the course before, I didn’t know exactly what it meant as far as the experience would go, but I figured as long as I followed the other runners on the trail I’d be fine. I downloaded the GPX file they published onto my phone into a hiking app I’ve used for offline use (Maps 3D) just in case I got lost, though.
High Water Route overview
We left right around 5 AM, picked up CJ’s uncle Nick who was going to join CJ and his mom in cheering his dad and me on, and arrived at the start around 6:20 AM. It had started to drizzle quite a bit within about 15 miles of the start, enough that the windshield wipers were necessary. This made me a bit nervous, as I hadn’t seen any indication of rain in the forecast that morning so I had left my rain shell back at the house. Considering it was in the high 30’s/low 40’s, there was a good chance of getting hypothermia if it lasted a while and I didn’t have the proper clothing.
At the risk of sharing Too Much Information, around the time it started raining, my bowels started talking to me again. I almost suggested we stop at an exit so I could use a restroom before we got to the race but it was getting close enough to the start time that I didn’t want to add any extra time to the trip. I probably should have done it anyway, because by the time we pulled into the parking lot, I was fighting hard not to start the race with a mess in my pants and I had to wait about 10-15 minutes in line for a porta-john in the cold and rain. I raced to do my business, dropped my drop bags off in the necessary locations, then got in line at the start with about 5 minutes to spare.
Start to Bumble Bee Ranch (~20 miles)
Start to Bumble Bee Ranch aid station
When the race started there was still a slight drizzle and the temperature was in the high 30’s/low 40’s Fahrenheit, which I felt a bit underdressed for with my shorts and light two tech layers.
My hands were a bit stiff with the cold, too. However, I knew once I started moving a bit and warmed up I’d be OK. I figured the temperatures would start to rise quickly as the sun rose. Since I hadn’t seen the rain in the forecast, I figured it would also let up soon, and it did within a mile or so.
My strategy was to run conservatively during the first half of the race, as I heard from multiple sources that it was easy to wear yourself out early on the first 40 miles or so by going out too hard, where the general trend was all downhill.
The drizzle had caused the clay soil at the start to clump and stick to the bottom of our shoes (and sandals!). Not only did this add a few pounds to each foot, the mud on the shoes stuck to the mud on the ground during each step, adding a bit of resistance to the lift of each foot. This happened in a number of places on the single and two-track sections within the first 5 miles or so.
Race start. Credit: Becky Johnson
Muddy shoes. Credit: Matt Brayton
The first 2.5 miles were along surface streets and relatively flat. I took it easy at about a 10-11:30 min/mi pace as I warmed up. In the crowd of runners I crossed paths within the first mile with Matt Brayton, a friend I had met at the Born to Run ultra marathon event a few years ago. I also saw another Born to Run friend Tony Russ spectating and cheering runners on along the course around the 2.5 mile mark. As I would later discover, this would not be the end of the Born to Run run-ins.
At mile 3, there was a shin-deep river crossing at Big Bug Creek. There was no avoiding getting our feet wet, as there was no path of stepping stones and the creek was at least 12-15 feet wide. The soil at the edge of the creek was muddy clay, making the footing a bit sloppy. I watched a handful of other runners cross and picked a route across that I thought might be the shallowest.
About to reach the creek crossing.
Big Bug Creek crossing
As I exited the water, I noticed that the big toe on my left foot was prominently sticking out of my Injinji socks. Oh great, I thought. When I had put them on that morning, I had noticed that the socks had had small holes on the bottoms of the three largest toes, but I didn’t think it would be an issue. Oops. I wasn’t too concerned about it right away, as I often run in the sandals without socks during my weekday training runs. But those are closer to 10-16 miles and I’ve found that socks definitely cut down on the wear and tear on my feet during ultras. I knew that I didn’t have any spare socks in my Bumble Bee Ranch aid station, as I had assumed I’d be fine with the ones that I started with. So I took a mental note to lube up my toes at Bumble Bee and any other aid station as necessary until I could grab new socks out of my drop bag at the Black Canyon City aid station.
The other side of the creek was even muddier and up a small hill. At the top of the hill, the trail widened out into a two-track / dirt road until mile 8, where it made a sharp turn to the left and dropped onto the Black Canyon Trail. This was a single track that wound along the side of the canyon, cutting in and out of each gully and drainage. This carried on through about mile 13. Though the overall trend was downhill, the trail itself had lots of small hills and twists and turns, making it hard to pick up much speed.
Dirt road around mile 4.
Single track around mile 10.
Single track around mile 10.
With my “A” goal of finishing before sunset, I would have to maintain an average pace of 11 min/mile. The later half of the race would be slower, as I would be tired and it would involve some climbs, so I knew I would have to bank some time in the first half that was largely downhill. From the start, I kept track of the net difference from this 11 min/mile pace every time my Garmin would notify me of the mile split time. For 7 of those miles I was able to hit about a 10 min/mile pace, the remaining 6 of those 13 I was at or above the 11 min/mile pace, netting me even with the 11 min/mile pace. I had been hoping for something closer to a 7-8 min/mile pace, imagining a flatter, wider trail that I could open up my stride and catch some speed. Uh oh.
I knew at that point that I was not going to be able to bank the time that I was hoping in order to finish at sunset. I would continue to keep track of the net time difference from the 11 min/mile pace until I reached Black Canyon City, but at that point I was just tracking how much later after sunset it would be so I could determine if I should pick up the headlamp I had left in my Black Canyon City drop bag or the one at Gloriana Mine. I was now aiming for my “B” goal of finishing within 12-14 hours.
Knowing that I needed to bank as much time as possible on the front end of the race to meet my goals, I tried to spend no more than 1-2 minutes at any non-drop bag aid station. I would get my water bottle topped off with water, mixing in a baggie of Tailwind if necessary. I would quickly grab a cup or two of ginger ale to reduce the need to hydrate on the first few miles out of an aid station. Drink-wise, aid stations had: Coke, Mountain Dew, Ginger Ale, water and Gu Roctane. Food-wise the options were usually: peanut M&M’s, trial mix, sugar coated ginger candy slices, ginger snaps, chocolate chip cookies, mini pretzels, pickle chips, boiled potato chunks and salt, peanut butter and jelly sandwich squares or wraps, turkey and cheese sandwich squares, refried bean wraps, watermelon slices, banana chunks, orange slices. There was probably more but my memory is a bit spotty at this point. My go-to solid foods were typically the watermelon slices, ginger snaps, pickles, boiled potato chunks with salt, and either the PB&J or refried bean wraps.
Despite the small dips and curvy trail slowing my pace, this was definitely my favorite part of the trail. With the exception of a few miles of dirt road, the rest of the route to Bumble Bee was almost all single track and very scenic, with all of the iconic southwest flora (read: cacti and scrub brush) and shades of brown/red/yellow/beige rock all around.
As I approached Bumble Bee Ranch, my friend CJ, his mom, and his uncle Nick were there to cheer me on and give me high fives as I ran by. Though I was still feeling pretty good, it always gives me a jolt of energy to have friends or family spectating and exuding enthusiasm.
Coming into Bumble Bee Ranch. Credit: Becky Johnson
Coming into Bumble Bee Ranch. Credit: Becky Johnson
Coming into Bumble Bee Ranch. Credit: Becky Johnson
Though I expected to spend about 10-15 minutes at each of the 3 drop-bag aid stations, I made a conscious effort to minimize the amount of time I spent at Bumble Bee to bank as much time as possible. The big toe that was sticking out was now joined by the two next to it. They were all doing fine, though I could tell the big one was getting slightly tender on the underside from friction. After grabbing my drop bag, I made sure to lube them up. I attempted to pull the fabric of the socks back over them but this proved to be a futile gesture, as they promptly protruded again shortly after leaving the aid station.
Bumble Bee Ranch to Black Canyon City (~18 miles)
Bumble Bee aid station and beyond
Immediately after leaving the aid station there’s a 300 ft. climb over the course of a mile on rough two-track. It was a bit of a slog up that hill but the slow pace allowed me to digest some of the food I had just scarfed down at the aid station. The next 3 miles or so to the Gloriana Aid Station were back on the Black Canyon Trail, a single track that follows the contour of the hillside, like following the bumps across the back of a scallop shell. Though the elevation profile shows an overall slight descent, it was more of the same short downs and ups which made it hard to get much speed…. there would be a slight down hill as the trail approached a drainage, then it would go back up after crossing the drainage, then around the side of the hill, and back to another drainage. Rinse, repeat.
The trail around mile 23.
Wildflowers around mile 23.
At about mile 25 or so, I reached the Gloriana Mine aid station. I could tell that the lube on my toes wasn’t going to hold up until Black Canyon City and I didn’t want to keep taking breaks to re-apply. After getting my water bottle topped off and mixing in some Tailwind, I asked one of the aid station volunteer if they had any athletic tape in their first aid kit. They searched around but couldn’t locate any. The did have a small bandage, which I immediately knew upon putting it on that it wasn’t going to last more than a few hundred feet. Meanwhile, the aid station volunteer was able to track down a roll of duct tape. Despite being bright white and contrasting highly with my black Injinji compression toe socks, I knew it was going to be necessary if I had any chance of getting to Black Canyon City without a blister or otherwise putting a WSER qualifying time at risk. So I quickly wrapped my big toe with a strip of duct tape, thanked the volunteer, and made my way down the trail looking like a homeless vagabond.
The trail continued on for 3 miles in a similar way to the trail before the Gloriana Mine aid station: single track following the contour, relatively flat but with small ups and downs, and fairly rocky. It was along this stretch that I saw the runner in first place already coming back on the out-and-back from Black Canyon City. I hadn’t paid close attention to the High Water route details, so I was a little confused to see a runner coming back on the trail. I then started to put the puzzle pieces together in my mind. I had seen a drop bag area at Gloriana Mine aid station, not sure quite who it was for… maybe the 60k runners? Then I realized that we would be backtracking to it after Black Canyon City. I was at about mile 27 and this guy was already about 20 miles ahead of me… on track to finish around the 7 hour mark!
The trail then dropped down about two hundred feet to a small creek before coming back up for a 150 ft. climb up an uneven dirt road. My quads were a bit tired from running down to the creek, so the climb was a welcome change, even if it was slow going.
After cresting a pass at the top of the climb, the road dropped down almost 600 ft. over the course of 2 miles. For the first time since Bumble Bee, I was able to do 11 and 12 min/mile paces on the descent since it was wide open without any small dips or rises. I was hoping to go faster, but at 28 miles in I could only move my legs so fast. Not only that, but the side of my left knee was starting to ache… the sign of a tightening IT band. This made descents kind of painful and I looked forward to any uphill segments I came across. After reaching the bottom of the descent, the course stayed relatively flat for a mile or so, then made a sharp turn to the left, went up a steep hill, then started into some rolling hills.
The stretch between Gloriana Mine and the next aid station, Soap Creek, was one of the longer ones of the original course at 7.5 miles. There would have been a longer 8.8 mile stretch from Black Canyon City to Cottonwood Gulch on the original course, but that was no longer the case with the High Water route. I noticed I was getting quite low on water about 3 miles from Soap Creek so I started rationing my sips. Even with the rationing I ended up finishing off the 20 oz. bottle about a mile before the aid station. As we were going to be running this section two more times with the out-and-back, I took a mental note to be more diligent rationing my water earlier on this stretch.
I minimized my time at Soap Creek, taking about 2-3 minutes to refill my water bottle, quickly stuff a few things into my face from the table, then be on my way. My memory is a little hazy, but I believe it was around here that I saw another friend from Born to Run, Tyler Clemens. He was pacing another Born to Run regular, 12-year old Sebastian Salsbury, for his first 100k. I would cross paths with them a few times during the race.
The next 4.5 miles to Black Canyon City aid station were pretty quick. Three of the miles were flat, two of which were on asphalt as it followed the road through town and up to High Desert Park. Even though half the asphalt stretch was a gradual up hill, I was able to keep running (well… shuffling) rather than walk. The last mile of that stretch was a descent through High Desert Park on a rocky, winding path. Though picturesque with many different types of cacti along the path, I got a bit frustrated with it, feeling that there should have been a much more direct route to the bottom!
As I approached the aid station, CJ, his mom, and uncle Nick were there to cheer me on again. Once again their enthusiasm was infectious and I felt grateful to have them there. I also saw another Born to Run regular, Mike Miller, volunteering around the drop bag tent. I don’t know Mike all that well so I didn’t say hi, but seeing yet another familiar BTR face was another pick-me-up.
I spent about 15 minutes at the aid station. I finally had the opportunity to swap my socks with ones without holes in the toes I could look less like a hobo. I had thrown in spare running shorts and tech t-shirts just in case I wanted to wear something fresh but what I had on was working fine so I decided not to waste time changing or risking a chafing issue.
I had used up all of my Tailwind so I grabbed a few more baggies. I also took the opportunity to hit the porta-john and lube up in all the usual chafing places. In addition to the usual aid station fare, I wolfed down a few Cocoroon coconut bites from my drop bag.
I was a little unclear about the route at this point, as about a 1/4 mile from the aid station there had been a junction with volunteers asking some people heading away from the aid station whether they had been to the river yet. I wasn’t sure what that had meant, so I asked a Black Canyon City aid station volunteer about it. They indicated that there was a 4.4 mile out-and-back stretch (2.2 miles each way) down to the river that we needed to do. We would come back to this aid station before doing the 22 mile mile out-and-back (11 each way) to Gloriana Mine. I decided I wanted to minimize my time when I came back to this aid station the first time (just topping off water and grabbing some solid food), so I grabbed my headlamp since I knew I wasn’t going to make it to Gloriana Mine before sunset.
I ended up seeing CJ’s dad Paul at the aid station as I was dealing with my drop bag. He asked if I had been down to the river yet. I told him no. He indicated he had just gotten back. I was impressed that he had been able to get about 4.5 miles ahead of me. I asked him how that stretch was. He kind of hesitated to answer before saying it was not easy. I could tell he didn’t want to hit me with bad news and it was going to be a bit of a slog. This wasn’t my first rodeo though, so to speak, and I had signed up for a challenge, so I resigned myself to just get through it and get on with the race.
After putting my drop bag back into place, I was on my way.
Black Canyon City to the river and back (~4.4 miles)
On my way out I saw CJ and his family again. After some high fives I made my way toward the junction and to the river. This stretch felt like it went on forever for whatever reason. It was relatively flat with about a climb of about 50 ft. up a hill in the first mile, then a descent of about 100 ft. via switchbacks over the course of another mile followed by a short stretch to the river. My left knee was still bothering me, so the switchbacks down were slow going.
At the turn around, we had to show our bib to volunteers and run around two stacked beer cans before heading back up. Heading back up the switchbacks was definitely a bit of slog, made all that more challenging by the fact that it was pretty much a single track and had two-way traffic… pretty much what the rest of the race would be from there on out.
I got back to Black Canyon City aid station in about an hour and 20 minutes. I had expected to see CJ and his family again but they had decided to grab some food at that point. I wouldn’t see them again until the end.
At the aid station, I spent about 5-6 minutes refilling my water bottle, grabbing some food, and then was on my again.
Black Canyon City to Gloriana Mine (11 miles)
On my way out of the aid station I saw my friend Matt Brayton again. He wasn’t all that far behind me at this point (and would later finish about 15 minutes before me, somehow passing me unnoticed in the dark… maybe while I was stopped at Gloriana Mine?).
The next 4.5 miles back to Soap Creek was pretty uneventful… a mile up the windy, rocky trail through High Desert Park, 2 miles of asphalt through Black Rock City, and the flat section to the aid station. I averaged 13-15 min/miles. When I got there I had to take a leak but there wasn’t a porta-john so I ended up hiking around to the back of aid station tent and finding a discrete bush to do my business at.
In the heat of the day I had been finding ice at the aid station was one of the keys to making me happy. At Soap Creek I loaded up my bottle with more water and ice… in hindsight, a bit too much ice. I had the 7.5 miles to Gloriana Mine ahead of me – the stretch where I had run out of water the first time. Though my water bottle was full, it is insulated and with the temperature dropping, it ended up not melting fast enough. The last 3 miles or so to Gloriana Mine I had a bunch of ice left in my bottle but no water. I tried eating one of the ice cubes but it was a bit too cold to continue doing. Fortunately since the temperature was dropping, that also meant I wasn’t perspiring as quickly, so it wasn’t as much of an issue as it could have been.
The road from Soap Creek was also pretty uneventful… rolling hills along a power line, flat road for a bit, then the 2 mile climb back up to the pass. The sunset was an amazing shade of dark pink.
Last light at the top of a hill to the east of the route around mile 45.5.
Doing my best Scott Jurek impersonation.
Skyline to the south.
Sunset near the top of the 2 mile climb around mile 47.
Sunset near the top of the 2 mile climb around mile 47.
I held out as long as I could without using my headlamp, but it started to get dark about 3.5 miles after Soap Creek (~6:35 pm). With about 4 miles to go to Gloriana, I whipped out my headlamp and trucked on. By this time I was back on the single track, so it was rocky with a drop off on the left side of the trail (east) and the hillside rising to the right (west). There was quite a bit of two-way traffic at this point, which made the going pretty slow. Each time a person came through, we’d have to step to one side or the other, potentially stopping briefly as to not fall down the hill!
Not long after turning my headlamp on, I realized that it was not illuminating the trail as well as I was expecting it to. I had swapped out the batteries in both headlamps I had brought with new ones before leaving Michigan. As the beam gradually grew dimmer, I realized that the batteries were not in fact *new* per se, just unused. They were Energizer lithium AAA batteries that had been knocking around in my supplies for several years and I figured I should probably use them before much longer. They had worked just fine when I tested them at home before leaving, but apparently the chemistry was no longer up to snuff. I usually carry a rechargeable lithium bike lamp as a backup but I was unable to track it down before heading to Arizona.
About 2.5 miles from Gloriana Mine, Paul and I crossed paths again. He was on his way back to the finish. I couldn’t really see him, as everything was dark and all I was seeing of the oncoming traffic was the headlamps shining into my face, but we recognized each other’s voices. As is customary in the ultramarathon world (and one of the things I love about the culture), many of us were sharing words of encouragement like “nice work”, “great job”, “looking strong”, and the like as we passed each other on the trail. At at a 15-20 min/mile pace and about 5 miles ahead of me, I figured he would finish about 1:15-1:45 ahead of me.
Shortly after, a woman who was running at a similar pace to me decided to stick with me for a mile or two and we made small talk as she ran directly behind me. The combined beams of our headlamps helped a bit, but it was still slow going with the rocky terrain. She decided to pass me with about a mile to go to the aid station, as she was actually supposed to be pacing her husband but they had gotten separated at an aid station and she was trying to find him. Fortunately I made it to Gloriana Mine without falling off the trail!
At Gloriana Mine I quickly made a bee-line to my drop bag to take care of the headlamp situation. I grabbed my spare headlamp that had truly fresh lithium AAA batteries and swapped fresh spares into the headlamp I had been wearing. I then carried that one as a handheld, giving me two sources of light and making the trail soooo much easier to see on the way back.
The temperature had dropped quite a bit by this time, and I got pretty chilled as soon as I stopped running. I quickly threw on a long sleeve tech shirt over what I was wearing and swapped the visor I had been wearing with a fleece beanie. I then took care of business at the porta-john, dumped the ice in my water bottle and replaced it with only water, and did the usual grazing of solid foods and soda from the aid station tables. By this time I was tired of Tailwind in my bottle so I opted not to use any more and just drank ginger ale or Coke at the aid stations instead.
I happened to see Tyler and Sebastian at this aid station again. I wished them luck, and with that, I was off again.
Gloriana Mine to Black Canyon City (11 miles)
The last eleven miles involved a lot of bad math in my head. I was trying to come up with estimates for when I’d be crossing that finish line… varying between a 14:30 and a 16:20 finish time. Yeah, that’s a pretty wide range. About a mile after leaving the aid station somebody passed me saying “we have 4 hours to go 10 miles”, referring to the 17 hour WSER qualifier cut-off. I thought, “That’s easy. I can usually do 10 miles in about an hour and half.” Then I realized that was assuming about a 9 min/mile pace running on flat roads and on fresh legs, not with 50+ miles behind me already. I had been averaging an 18-19 min/mile pace in the dark, mostly walking due to being tired and not able to see the trail. That’s a big difference. At a 20 min/mile pace, that would be about 3:20 for the remaining 10 miles, giving me a 16:20 finish. I decided I wanted at least an hour buffer Just In Case… or more, if I could muster it. And with that, I decided now that I had my headlamp, I was going to avoid walking as much as I could for those last ten miles. And off I shuffled.
The next 2 miles were on the rocky single track, so it was still pretty slow going. I’m pretty sure I didn’t walk at all, or if I did, it was only for a few seconds. I was still only averaging an 18-19 min/mile. Then came the 200 ft. descent down to the creek, followed by the 150 ft. climb back up the dirt road.
By this time, my left knee had somehow loosened up again and descending wasn’t painful anymore. However, on my way down, I stepped to the side of the trail to let someone pass coming up on their way to Gloriana Mine. As I did, I kicked a sharp rock and muffled a cry. I had been kicking rocks all day long, but I realized this time was different. This time it had been pretty intense and the pain didn’t quickly subside. I looked down and saw a dime size pool of blood in front of my left big toe, the same one that I had wrapped with duct tape earlier in the day. I said to myself, “Great Brahm. Eight miles left and you go and do this?” From the start I had been pretty confident that I would finish before the 17 hour cut-off, as long as I didn’t do something stupid. With ultra marathons, the chance of something going wrong only increases with the distance. I had told myself “just don’t do anything stupid and you’ll make that cut-off” multiple times throughout the day. Then I had to go and do this.
I wasn’t going to let it stop me. There wasn’t much I could do at this point. The Soap Creek aid station was 3.5 miles away, and what would they be able to do anyway? By the time I would get there, I figured the bleeding would stop. So there was nothing to do but keep moving forward.
It was slow going up the dirt road to the pass as I hobbled and figured out the best way to minimize the pain. Then came the 2 mile descent on the dirt road, where I managed to eek out a 15 min/mile pace.
With each mile I kept re-adjusting my finishing time estimates. “You can do this, Brahm”, I would think. For a few miles “Sub 16. You can do sub 16.” became my mantra. Then “OK, 15:50. You can do 15:50.”. Then “Hmmm… maybe 15:45?”
By the time I reached the Soap Creek aid station, I was in a zone. I barely spent a minute there, just long enough to top off my water bottle and be on my way. I was on a mission.
The 2 miles of asphalt through Black Canyon City went relatively quickly. I would see a runner up ahead in the distance and get determined to pass them. This mentally helped me to keep moving and not walk. I even managed to get a few miles in at a 13 min/mile pace, faster than what I had managed on the dirt road descent. I was starting to get pretty excited at this point. My estimates were getting even shorter. 15:40? 15:35? Was 15:30 even possible?
The last 1.5 miles seemed to last forever. The climb up to the top of High Desert Park wasn’t too bad, but the windy, rocky trail through the park seemed endless. A runner I had passed going up the hill and another I had passed on the road caught up to me at this point and followed close behind me. When the single track ended and exited out onto the dirt road for the last 1/4 mile, all three of us picked up our speed to finish strong. I couldn’t seem to muster as much as them, but I didn’t care. I had put in a solid effort for those last 10 miles and I was getting my WSER qualifier. I crossed under the finish line arch with a time of 15:34:57. Not only was it a qualifier, but it was a personal best by nearly 2.5 hours!
Crossing the finish line. Credit: Aravaipa Running
Paul and me at the finish. Credit: Becky Johnson
The hard earned finisher buckle.
CJ and his family were at the finish and once again cheered me on. His dad had finished with a time of 14:00, about an hour and a half before me! We each grabbed a complementary wood-fired oven pizza and hung around for about an hour or so, cheering others on as they crossed the finish line. It was starting to get cold again and my body was starting to shiver and shake now that it was no longer moving. Thankfully CJ and his mom had thought to bring blankets with them, otherwise there would have been no way I could have sat around that long.
With about an hour drive back to the rental house, we hit the road around 11 PM after locating our drop bags. We stayed up for another hour or so recalling things that had happened in the race, showering, then hitting the sack for a well earned slumber.
A big thanks to the Johnson family for letting me stay with them in their rental house, including me in their family gatherings, and cheering me on during the race. Your support and hospitality was and is greatly appreciated!
Thanks to Aravaipa Running for putting on a great race. It’s always tough to make last minute course changes but all in all it worked out in the end. Thanks for looking out for our safety. The complementary pizzas at the end was an awesome touch.
Last but not least, thanks to my wife and kids for supporting me on my bucket list item journey and putting up with all of my training!
Every race has its lessons. Here are some I took away from this one.
- I need to double check all my gear before hand, especially batteries and clothing, preferably before leaving home. I would have discovered those holes
- Unused batteries are not the same as new batteries. Also, I should have grabbed the spare batteries I had in my Black Canyon City drop bag when I grabbed the first headlamp.
- I should throw moleskin, athletic tape and spare socks in each drop bag.
- I chose not to wear sunscreen for this race. While I didn’t turn into a lobster, my exposed hands and lower quads definitely got pink and I had a sweet tan line across my thighs to boot! I don’t like the feel or smell of sunscreen, nor the idea of blocking my pores when I’ll be sweating so much, but even one application would have been better than none at all.
- The Luna Oso 2.0’s definitely held up, but I felt the mud early in the race definitely stuck more it their deep lugs than it would have in the the Mono 2.0’s. I’m wondering if the Mono’s would have been better.
- While my finishing time was a personal best by almost 2.5 hours, I felt like this was largely due to the general downhill profile of the course. I think I walked more than I should have and should have been able to run at a faster pace. My training was adequate for an adequate finish, but I think it was heavily biased toward the aerobic/endurance side. I’d like to focus on getting faster through speed work and intervals as well as being stronger on hills (both up and down).